Friday, December 25, 2009
Friday, December 18, 2009
And so it begins. For months now, arguments have been hurled back and forth like a mud-slinging match between political parties, and I've tried to stay away. The fights have erred on insulting, and both sides have angered me with their accusations. If you're at all tuned in to the horse racing world, you know this debate has become infamous: who deserves Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta? Many articles have been writ on this subject—some thoughtful, some ridiculous—and since this article will be the year-end edition of The Call to the Post, I've decided to break my silence and give my final word about the two top contenders for the most coveted Eclipse Award. (That way, if I should die in my plane flight going to or coming from Santa Anita over the break, all of you will know how I truly stood on this topic, because obviously the masses have been waiting with baited breath far too long...)
In order to make an intelligent opinion on this debate, one must know the facts of both sides. We will start with Zenyatta, then go on to Rachel, stating each's attributes for why she should win the Eclipse for Horse of the Year, and then contrast their detractors.
Zenyatta completed a perfect season with 5 wins in 5 starts, four of them Grade I victories. She became the first female horse to win the Breeders' Cup Classic when she won the race in her patented last-to-first running style, when challenged against males for the first time. The Classic was called one of the deepest fields in history, boasting a Kentucky Derby winner, a Belmont and Travers Stakes winner, an Arlington Million winner, as well as top stakes runners from Europe. The Classic was surely the biggest test in the 5-year-old mare's career; not only did she break slowly and start on the wrong lead, but she had to come between horses with her furious late charge, something she'd never had to do before. As a big horse, standing at 17.1 hands, it's very difficult to weave between traffic, but Zenyatta did that and then some, going on to score America's richest race by a length. And she did this like she was running against a bunch of mid-grade fillies, her ears pricking and without breaking a sweat. Zenyatta's victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic capped off a perfect career; she was retired unbeaten in 14-for-14 races. The popular mare brought the Santa Anita crowd to its knees in celebration; the presence, the power, and talent of Zenyatta is something unlike we'll probably ever see again.
In the closest call of her career, Zenyatta won by a determined head in the 2009 edition of the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar. Her late running style nearly got her into trouble in that race, and perhaps her regular jockey, Mike Smith, was a little too confident going into it. Zenyatta hung dead last in the middle of the turn, and didn't start to pick off horses until the rest of the field was beginning to turn for home. The stretch looked desperate as Zenyatta began to make her charge, her stride lengthening, Smith imploring her to dig deep for all she had, and it was with the heart of a champion she was able to get up to the wire and keep her record perfect by her tenacious head. In truth, it wasn't Zenyatta's fault the race finished so close; it was more like bad timing by her jockey. After the race, Smith acknowledged his error and marked the big mare still wasn't blowing when she returned to the winner's circle. Only human error, it seems, could make this champion come close to failure, but her class always shone in the end. Steve Haskin said it best in his article about Zenyatta after the Hirsch: "When you're last in a field that is strung out a dozen lengths, and then they wind up going three-quarters in a sloth-like 1:13 3/5, and you're still 4 1/2 lengths back at the eighth pole, and you have to come home in :23 1/5 and then a final sixteenth in about :05 3/5, and you get there, there is no doubt you are something special."
Rachel Alexandra has also had a perfect season, winning 8 of 8 starts, five of them Grade I races; three of those races were won against males, one of those against older males. As a 3-year-old filly, Rachel Alexandra has accomplished feats never before recorded in modern times. She was also the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown; she won it coming out of post position #13, which no other horse had ever done before. She won the Kentucky Oaks by 20 ¼ lengths, the largest margin in the race's history, and became the first Oaks winner to not only run in the Preakness, but to win both those races. No 3-year-old filly has ever gone against older males so early as Rachel did in her career and won, which she did in the Woodward. She set a new stakes record in the Grade I Mother Goose, and broke Ruffian's record largest margin of 13 ½ lengths by 5 ¾ more. And she has done all of this in whatever running style the circumstances ask of her, whether it be front-running, from just off the pace, or coming from behind horses.
Though an argument could be made for each of her tests against males as to which her best performance might be, most would contend the Woodward was Rachel's most impressive victory, though she won it by a smaller margin than any other start in her 2009 season. Just as in Zenyatta's Hirsch victory, which was her closest brush with defeat, Rachel won in her own unbelievable way; but instead of a nail-biting last-to-first dig to the wire like the 5-year-old mare, Rachel was forced through blistering fractions to not only set the pace, but to hold off the attacks of older males throughout the entire race, and finally, the late-charge of Stephen Foster winner, Macho Again. And just as in Zenyatta's Hirsch, when the last few strides seemed too insurmountable to overcome, the champion found some way to clench victory before it could be yanked out of reach. In short, Rachel Alexandra has time and time again been put into a situation that stacks all odds against her, whether it be her age, her sex, her post position, or simply her running style, and all threats she has turned away with her guts and class.
To lay blemish to either of these phenomenal females would be to dishonor what they've accomplished, and I will not go so low as to do such. I love both equally, and do not hold one above the other, because they are too different to compare. Essentially, Zenyatta and Rachel are an apple against an orange. Both have had a sensational season 2009, laying the boys down on the track like so many beaten and broken victims in the wake of their brilliance. If either should be faulted for not running in a particular race, it is their connections, and not the horses themselves, that should be picked on. The Eclipse Award is for Horse of the Year, not race of the year, and even a race that featured both of these champions would not have lowered my opinion of either, nor would it have proven anything. A single race is flawed and does not prove absolute answers, though both these females have run time and time again to prove one thing: there is no male that can measure up to them.
2009 will be known as the year of the girls, where we were blessed to see two completely different horses, one a five-year-old mare, the other a 3-year-old filly, show us what it really means to be a Great, a champion for the ages. Both will go down in history, and an Eclipse won't add to or detract from their legacy. If it were up to me, I would give them both the award, because they each deserve it in their own way. But as there must be a democratic voting system, and if I were only able to choose one horse, I would look at which horse has had the most complete season in 2009, and that horse is Rachel, without a doubt. While Zenyatta also had a perfect season, she was not allowed to race until half of the year was already over, and of those races, all three tracks where she competed were in the same state, California. When she was scheduled to run her first race of 2009, in the Louisville Distaff at Churchill Downs, Zenyatta's connections scratched her when the track turned up wet the night before. As for Rachel, she won as many Grade Is as Zenyatta had starts for the entire year, faced males three times, and accomplished unprecedented feats for her age. She ran at seven different tracks this year, and in six different states. Though Rachel's owner didn't enter her in the Breeders' Cup Classic, the filly had run 11 races in less than a year's time, and that much running is taxing on a horse competing at her caliber at her age; for the filly's best interest, resting her for a 2010 campaign was the right decision.
My opinion of the Horse of the Year awards can be summed up with a chuckle. After calling the Grade I Mother Goose Stakes, where Rachel Alexandra romped by 19 ¼ lengths and set a new stakes record geared-down, track announcer Tom Durkin laughed as he looked at the margin, the way the race was won, and the numbers. Though the race's order of finish was more than obvious, and Rachel's win uncontestable, the track announcer's job requirements forced him to make the following announcement: "The results," he said with a chuckle, "are not official."
Thursday, December 17, 2009
So, I submitted my three photos: Hollywood Dreams, Churchill Downs, and Rachel Alexandra wins the Kentucky Oaks. Adam predicted the TBA's reaction would be accurately depicted by the following video:
We both had a good laugh, and then set about telling all of our professional photographer friends about the contest, and that they should also submit so we wouldn't look like the two bullies who came in and crashed everyone's little party. So basically, we called the cavalry, and with them came competition that rivaled what we'd submitted. We stopped laughing. Dwarfed now by an array of fantastic photos by Sarah K. Andrew, Bob Mayberger, Scott Serio, Bud Morton, Eric Kalet, and many others, we had successfully given ourselves the kind of competition we'd asked for. Yes, you get what you ask for.
Right now, the professionals are generally in the lead. The winner of the contest doesn't get a prize or anything, they are simply declared "the winner" and according to the TBA, "The picture will be featured on the photo page, and the photog given the opportunity to link to anything they want and to say whatever they want (provided it abides to civil discourse)."
I'm just in it because I like the competition. So, if you feel so inclined, do me a solid and go vote for my Hollywood shot, because it's my most-voted for picture; and then, if you want to stroke my ego, go vote for my others, as well. And hey! If you vote for me, comment on this blog and if I win, I will personally thank-you when I ascend the Podium of Win. Heck, I'll even link to whatever you want linked, like if you want to inform people about your Thoroughbred retirement farm, or if you want to show off your new cute puppy or something...
Sunday, November 29, 2009
I practiced shooting from the inside, debating over which side of the rail I should shoot the big race later that afternoon. I wasn't crazy about the position, since I'm a lover in tight close-ups, and my lens just isn't big enough for that kind of shot so far away from the rail. All my shots at Belmont taken from the inside were with the rented 300mm; how I longed for one this day! However, so far the light was much better shooting East, as all the horses were in full light and the shadows weren't a battle. Later in the day, as the sun began to move, I had to keep changing my opinion.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
One of the all-time perks of being a horse racing photographer is having the honor of watching history unfold from pretty much the best seat in the house. There's nothing quite like standing only a jump behind the finish with your hair actually flying in the wind of horseflesh, being carried in that current of adrenaline and flurry of glory; yes we sometimes even cherish that clod of dirt that gets flung in our lenses.
Thus, while I was watching the party erupt at Santa Anita Park after Zenyatta took the Breeders' Cup Classic, a piece of me ached like a missing limb that I could not be there in person to witness history. And since the technology of time travel has not yet been perfected, and I can't go back and somehow experience that moment first-hand myself, I did the next best thing and contacted some of my fellow photographers who were lucky enough to be at Santa Anita on that glorious day for the sport.
The following are direct testimonials from three extremely talented photographers, whose work has been seen everywhere from Sports Illustrated to Blood-Horse. They are Bud Morton and Bob Mayberger (east coast invaders, from Massachusetts and "New Yawk"), and California consummate, Charles Pravata; all great all-around guys whom I feel lucky to consider friends. I asked them their thoughts of the Breeders' Cup Classic experience, and here are their answers...
"This year the dream came true, not once, but twice. I had the privilege to be photographing and attending the winning efforts of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta as they made their historic runs at Saratoga and Santa Anita. As these fine fillies crossed the finish line and marked their places in history, the feeling and response of those in attendance was almost identical. Being on the track gives you a unique perspective and feeling. Waves of applause and goodwill flowed to the winners as they returned, and strangers high-fived each other. Even if you were not a fan of the winner, you rejoiced in their accomplishment and felt great that you were there for it. Having an east coast, “real dirt”, old-school bias, I guess that Rachel’s win in the Woodward was more special for me personally, but to have been able to record both events was something I will never forget."
"What I think made Zenyatta's last to first dash all the more remarkable, however, was that she was never reputed to be a horse who possessed a quick turn of foot. Her physical size is not conducive to such a move in traffic and I still marvel as I watch the replay of the Classic how she was able to change course and dart between horses as she did without clipping heels with any of her rivals. But then again, I guess the truly great ones always keep a little in reserve and save their best for last!"
Charles Pravata: "During the week leading up to the Breeders' Cup, I kept hearing "I don't know..." or 'I don't think she can do it, etc." Doubt was in the air. I was hearing this stuff from trainers, exercise riders, jockeys, turf writers, photographers, all of racing's insiders. Surprisingly, by the time Saturday came, I found myself doubting her, too. In the end, I don't think I or most other people doubted her at all. I think we were all just preparing ourselves for the disappointment we would have felt had she lost.
"[But] she didn't lose. Instead, she made history, and everyone in that building walked out of there with a smile on their face. How often does an entire racing audience leave the track feeling great about what just happened? Hardly ever. When I heard Trevor Denman say "She's starting to pick them off now..." I knew it was over. In my mind, Zenyatta was either going to beat every horse on that track or none of them at all. It was just a question of whether or not she would fire. After the buffer on my camera ran out, shortly after she crossed the wire, I pumped my fist in the air three or four times exclaiming "YEAH!!! YEAAAAHHHHH!" I gave a hug to my photographer friends Sarah K.A. and T.J. who shot the race right next to me. The three of us were in a little cluster, on our ladders, just past the wire on the turf course. I also apologized to them for letting loose after she had won. I normally don't cheer, but, this was a special occasion. When I made my way back on to the main track, the first people I saw coming towards me were fellow California photographers Bill M., Tom B., Duane L., and Shig K. Without even thinking we all just started hugging each other. I think it was special for us because she was "our horse;" us left coast photographers, with our fair-weather horses, and all-weather tracks. Zenyatta had been our girl for a while now, and when she crossed the wire in front, we all won. The joy and camaraderie we all felt when we came together on that track will be a lasting memory.
"The icing on the cake was that my dad was in attendance to witness Zenyatta's historic run. It was his first and last time seeing the mare in person, being that he lives on the east coast. A lifelong football coach and avid sports fan, he's been in attendance for the Super Bowl, World Series, Stanley Cup, NCAA Football National Championship, NCAA Final Four, and the list goes on. He said of Zenyatta's race: "I've never seen anything like it." He couldn't get over how much it meant to everyone in attendance, and the fact that there were people crying all around him. Not to mention the eruption that engulfed the grandstand when Mike Smith swung her out and got clear. He knew he had been witness to one of the all-time great horses and all-time great moments in sports."
Originally published at smilepolitely.com.
The day of the 2009 Kentucky Derby, I was glued to the rail at Churchill Downs and shaking my head at this 8-year-old girl standing next to me who had been hitting the long shots all day like some kind of pint-sized prophet. She had garnered a small crowd, a fan base that grew with each remarkable pick; in three straight undercard races, this girl picked long shot winners with her own scientific method: the color of the horse's saddle cloth. Each time she won, the surrounding crowd would go into hysterics; her dad lifted her up on his shoulders and people began to beg the little girl for her next pick. I had to comfort myself in knowing that since she was only picking the winners of maiden claiming and allowance races, it would only be a matter of time before my knowledge of horseflesh would eventually win out in the end (thankfully, she didn't pick Mine That Bird for the Derby later on, or I'm sure my head would've exploded). Admittedly, I'm terrible at picking anything but stakes horses because I don't follow the contenders.
But when the field began to parade for the Grade I Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, I confess a ghost of a sneer crossed my face when I glanced at the tiny prophet. Am I so sinister? Well, maybe I was a little jealous this kid who knew nothing about horses was picking 60% or better on the undercard races, but I also knew this: because she didn't follow the stakes horses like I did, there was no way in hell she was picking the winner of this race based solely on the color of his saddle cloth. After all, she was picking against Einstein.
Like a fine wine, the striking black horse named Einstein has only grown better with age. He is a 7-year-old horse, a stallion, and as hard-knocking as they come; aptly named, Einstein has shown brilliance on all surfaces, from turf and dirt to the tricky synthetics. It hardly needs explanation how rare a horse he is to be able to handle all these surfaces ambidextrously; while most horses need to be coddled and kept to one surface, perish the thought if the ground should turn up imperfect, Einstein has handled them all and is always right there when it counts. He is simply a horse who knows how to win; Einstein has found victory coming from dead last, sitting mid-pack, off the pace, and on the lead—there is essentially nothing this horse can't do. The past two years, he has finished in the money more than 70% of the time. While he has his quirks, like any mortal, he has battled obstacles few horses could come back from and persevered, a champion to the end.
The first time Einstein tried a dirt surface was in his fifth start; the track was a sealed slop at Gulfstream. He romped by seven lengths, winning in front-running fashion after he had raced each of his previous races from dead last. He won his first stakes race in the Grade I Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Stakes on February 25, 2006. Einstein was four years old.
While it hardly seems plausible Einstein could ever be considered an underdog, one only has to look at his towering stablemate to understand how this versatile horse started out as "second best." The time was brief, but the impression was lasting. Trainer Helen Pitts had two promising horses in her barn in the beginning 2007—Einstein and this chestnut 3-year-old colt named Curlin. After Curlin's maiden race, where he romped by a commanding 12 ¾ lengths, the majority interest in the chestnut was privately sold to Jess Jackson of Stonestreet Stables in a partnership with Satish Sanan, and he was moved to trainer Steve Asmussen's barn to prep for the Kentucky Derby. With Curlin's tremendous prospects no longer her concern, Pitts was left without a chance at having her first contender for the Kentucky Derby, and was eventually forced to watch the colt win the next two Eclipse Awards for Horse of the Year. Einstein was her consolation, but he has hardly turned out to be a feeble prize.
Imagine the devastation Ms. Pitts had to endure when on May 19, 2007, Einstein ran headlong into tragedy while Curlin emerged as the winner of the second leg of the Triple Crown with the Preakness Stakes. On the undercard for the Preakness, Einstein was entered in the Dixie Stakes at Pimlico and unseated jockey Robby Albarado when the horse tripped and fell over Mending Fences, the front-running horse who broke down on the backstretch. Though Einstein was not badly injured in the Dixie, and picked himself up and finished the race riderless, he sustained a bruised splint bone and did not race again for eight months.
Einstein returned to winning form in his comeback race, a one-mile allowance on turf at Gulfstream, but failed to impress in his next start, when he finished sixth in the Grade I Donn Handicap. But after the Donn, he would do no worse than second place in his next five starts, winning his second Gulfstream Park Turf Stakes, as well as his first Woodford Reserve Turf Stakes at Churchill Downs; in the Grade I Stephen Foster on dirt, he finished second to Curlin.
And then came what seemed like a no-brainer to the Einstein camp, to run him in the prestigious Grade I Arlington Million. But the race was over for the black horse the moment he stumbled badly coming out of the gate, and the soft Arlington turf course didn't provide him with the kick he needed, letting him do no better than fifth. But after a breather, Einstein returned to Churchill Downs and the dirt, and defeated the champion Commentator in his first stakes victory on the surface in the Grade II Clark Handicap.
Einstein has proven to have certain races that just elude him; one is the Donn Handicap, another is the Stephen Foster, and the last is the Arlington Million. I don't think there is or will ever be another horse that can claim that. He fared better in the 2009 renewal of the Donn, finishing 3rd, but finished fifth again in his second try at the Million. But Einstein was saving himself for a more historic feat when he flew to California and conquered the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap his first time over a synthetic surface. Not only was the Santa Anita Handicap his richest win to date, he made Helen Pitts the first woman trainer ever to win the classic race.
Though I hadn't been at the track when I watched Einstein win the Santa Anita Handicap, I was screaming almost equally as loud as that day at Churchill Downs when Einstein began to unwind that long stride and he began to duke it out with the talented Cowboy Cal in the Woodford Reserve Turf. There he was, Einstein, the Comeback Kid, the Man of Many Faces, showing us all he had, starting to smoke like a rocket ready for blast-off. You can bet that 8-year-old prophet next to me on the rail was initiated into what it was really like to root for a horse when Einstein came flying past the wire in a flurry of flared nostrils and shredded grass, becoming the first horse ever to repeat victories in that Grade I test. It's one thing to bet on a horse, another to really love one.
Though Einstein was denied his opportunity to emulate Lava Man and be a Grade I winner on three different surfaces when he tried the Stephen Foster again, finishing a hard-luck third to Macho Again after stumbling at the start and being boxed in and checked in the stretch, he never failed to display class and heart. He finished second in the Grade I Pacific Classic at Del Mar to Baffert-trained Richard's Kid as a prep race for the Breeders' Cup Classic.
But the Breeders' Cup Classic was just not meant to be for Einstein. While the race provided a number of obstacles for the champion, number one being the dominatrix Zenyatta, Einstein's scheduled last race disappointed his connections so much that they decided to give him one last shot at glory. The site of this race will be Churchill Downs, the place where Einstein has proven so dominant, winning beneath the twin spires on both turf and dirt. How fitting it will be that Einstein takes his career bow at the track he has dominated with such authority.
Perhaps his most bitter career defeat was in the 2009 Stephen Foster, where Einstein never really got the opportunity to run. He will get the chance to take on the horse that beat him, Macho Again, when he enters the gates on Black Friday. Though he will never be secured a second opportunity at a Grade I dirt race if this be his final start, it would be with sweet revenge if he should show the gray horse what an unchecked, un-boxed Einstein can do over the Churchill dirt. For whatever reason, Einstein has fallen in love with the dirt at Churchill more than any other track, and it has been good to him.
Einstein has given Helen Pitts a great ride, carrying her to victory on both sides of the continent, cementing her name, as well as his own, into the record books. To be given the opportunity to watch this 7-year-old horse compete at the top of his game, when he could’ve been retired to the breeding shed years ago is an honor, and win or lose in the Clark Handicap, Einstein will go down in history as one of the few horses who ever lived up to his lofty name. Dirt or turf, synthetic or slop, he has met each test with the same heart and determination, and that in itself is more than you could ever hope for in a single horse. Einstein may not be able to boast the kind of streaks like the Curlins and Zenyattas of the world, but that only makes him more relatable to us humans; perhaps the lesson he has taught us is more invaluable, too: that we can rise from the ashes of defeat to achieve what was once merely a pipedream.
See updated information of the Clark, including post positions, at Bloodhorse.com.
Friday, November 13, 2009
We will never see another horse like Zenyatta; she is the kind of horse that impresses not only in her heart-stopping stretch drives, but as an individual, pawing at the ground post-race like a Spanish fighting bull ready to charge the cape-wielding matador. If anyone had any doubts as to the extent of her greatness, as to whether or not she deserves to be ranked in the pantheon of the all-time Greats of the sport, their doubts were shattered to oblivion this past Saturday when the undefeated mare was tested against the most decorated field in Breeders' Cup Classic history. Zenyatta had every right to lose this day, and still she was able to pull herself together and push her talents to new heights, turning away this class field and embarrassing them and anyone who had dared to doubt her brilliance. Zenyatta not only became the first female horse to win the Breeders' Cup Classic, she won the hearts of everyone who was lucky enough to witness her amazing display of athleticism, turning her enemies to allies, her naysayers to her biggest flatterers.
And how fitting is it that Zenyatta be named after a classic rock 'n roll album? The mare prances and struts like a rock star; she is in essence a horse with the soul of Robert Plant, combined with the brilliance of Jimi Hendrix. It is not just Zenyatta's thrilling running style that makes her exciting to watch, but her swagger and savoir fare, dancing to each bout like a boxer on her toes, nostrils flared, mane tossing, neck bowed and bulging. Her girth alone imposes the average horse, and coupled with her reputation, it's surprising more challengers didn't try to flee the gate once they saw they were going up against Goliath incarnate. For any one of these traits, a horse should be coveted, but for a single horse to bare them all makes Zenyatta a living legend.
While Zenyatta's career has been marked by seemingly effortless victories, and most would agree she could've beaten any female in her sleep, the Breeders' Cup Classic should've proven the undoing for this great mare. Her season thus far had developed as nothing more than a less-impressive repeat of last year's same string of races, minus the Apple Blossom, and many wondered if Zenyatta had peaked and would have her unbeaten streak snapped in a test against classy males. In the 2009 edition of the Clement L. Hirsche Stakes at Del Mar, the big race mare won only by the smallest of margins, and it wasn't clear whether her regular rider, Mike Smith, had reacted too late or Zenyatta's brilliance was beginning to fade; but her return to form in the Lady's Secret proved she wasn't done yet.
Mercifully, Jerry and Ann Moss decided to take a chance with their undefeated mare and enter her in the Breeders' Cup Classic when the challenge was already shaping up to be a race for the ages, with the decision being entrusted to Mike Smith, who ultimately seemed to have the last word. It was all or nothing; Zenyatta would either prove her class against some of the best horses in the world, or she would succumb to the pressures of facing the toughest test she'd yet have to face. But she saw their challenge and called it.
Zenyatta walked into the history books the same way she pranced into every race prior, two-stepping and pawing the dirt, bowing her neck and putting on a parade for the fans packed ten-deep just to catch a glimpse of her. She would not be outshone by any Kentucky Derby or Belmont winner, or even an Arlington Million or a Queen Elizabeth II winner; going off as the overwhelming favorite, the crowd had come to see the California Colossus battle the rest in the biggest race of the year.
Scripted like a Hollywood movie, the drama before the race equaled the heart-palpitating finish. A chorus of gasps could be heard from the crowd as Zenyatta refused to enter the starting gate. Never having had a history of bad gate behavior, tensions rose as the heavy favorite was backed out and a flock of starters attempted to guide the giant mare back inside the start. Whether it was her proximity to males, her wide girth making her claustrophobic, or the sound of the helicopter overhead making her anxious, the sight of the usually collected superhorse balking at the start was enough to create a contagious spike in blood pressure in the Santa Anita grandstands.
After Zenyatta was urged inside the gate and Mike Smith remounted her saddle, a second event stalled the $5 million-dollar race. The nervous Quality Road, record-setting winner for the Amsterdam Stakes and a brilliant Florida Derby, also refused to go into the starting gate, and as he was blindfolded and urged inside, the sound of the choppers covering the race sent him into a frenzy. Never before had a Breeders' Cup race begun with such a frightening gate scene: the multiple million-dollar horse reared up in the starting gate while blindfolded, bucked and kicked open the gate, and almost got away from the starters as the rest of the field stood locked in their respective post positions. To make matters on the other horses worse, after the gates had been shaken by the delinquent Road, and the talented bay was backed out of the gates and scratched from the race, each horse that had been standing quietly in their posts was also taken out. Mentally, this was a disaster for these creatures of habit. While horses are schooled in the mornings to overcome such adversities as gate issues, breaking habit tends to confuse them and can work up a horse to run more aggressively than he normally would, or cause them not to break well at all.
The latter was the case for Zenyatta. While she has a patented gate break, slow and trailing at the back of the field, when the Classic was finally able to start and the horses were free to burst in a flurry of hoofs and screaming jockeys, the great mare hesitated. For a split-second, an eternity in horse racing, Zenyatta was standing still as the rest of the horses were sprinting away from her. Mike Smith told Blood-Horse, "We got her back in the gate, and she was standing so still I didn't want to move her. But I was a little worried when the gates opened she wouldn't move period, and she didn't. I thought, 'Oh God, no, not today.'"
But Zenyatta did eventually pick up her feet and begin to track the rest of the horses, falling at the back of the 13-horse field behind the last horse, Derby winner Mine That Bird, who also has a penchant for lagging dead last in a field before making a late-closing kick. For all intensive purposes, the start of the Classic was a complete disaster for Zenyatta. After breaking late, she began running on the wrong lead and was tossing her head. Her previous races had proven she may need to be a little closer to horses when coming from off the pace, but here she was running a $5-million dollar race of the year dead last and giving the lead horses more than a ten-length head start.
But the picture looked rosier for Zenyatta when Mine That Bird finally began to trail her; the race was beginning to take the shape Smith had imagined all along. The great mare was now running comfortably, and she was working into a good rhythm. The Classic began to mirror all the other races she had run before, just letting the rest of the field have their run while she waited patiently on their heels.
But as the field turned for home, the horses began to stack six wide at the final turn, and Mike Smith made the move that reminded us just why he is a Hall of Fame jockey. Instead of steering the big mare on the outside, as the team had become accustomed to in nearly every race before, the jockey took her in between horses in tight quarters to keep her from losing ground. "Zenyatta, if she wins this, she'll be a superhorse...," Trevor Denman called grimly to the crowd of 58,854 rapt fans. Masterfully, masterfully, Smith took her upon the backside of Summer Bird, the East Coast classics winner, and then the unsung Euro, Twice Over, and as she swung outside of that great blanket of champion horseflesh, California sunshine washed over her. California sunshine is to Zenyatta as spinach is to Popeye the Sailor Man. Finally, the stretch was all hers, and Zenyatta was allowed to stretch her great invisible wings; her immense stride unleashed with the force of a bomb blowing the rest of the competition to smithereens.
"This—is—un-be-lievable! Zenyatta, what a performance! One we'll never forget! Looked impossible!" Denman called breathlessly.
Just like in her thirteen previous races, she coasted to victory with ears pricking, galloping out without so much as a sweat. How fitting it was she returned home in her final race to the roar of Santa Anita's grandstands, the hallowed old race place that stands as the capitol for California racing. She ruled over the state with an unequaled authority, and cast down those world invaders who dared to challenger her on her home turf.
Jimi Hendrix, Robert Plant, eat your heart out. While rock stars may send us to dizzying heights of musical ecstasy, Zenyatta is the impossible package. She is undeniably brilliant; she is an untested, invincible champion that will live on in all the hearts and minds of those who were lucky enough to be alive to see her. And just like these immortal rock stars, her brilliance will be remembered far after she's gone. Zenyatta will be around for as long as we let horses do what they were born to do; she will be the phantom turning for home and circling the others with her Earth-gobbling stride, and will live in the warm, enriching breath of each California sunrise.
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Lethal Heat was second-best to Zenyatta in the Grade I Lady's Secret at Santa Anita on October 10, and has that prep under her belt as an advantage. Cocoa Beach is also entered, who ran second to Zenyatta in last year's Ladies' Classic; unfortunately, the Godolphin filly hasn't been the same mare this year as last and it's hard to tell where her form stands at this point. Music Note, who was third in last year's Ladies' Classic, has won her last two races and has a good chance of improving off those victories. The 1-2 finishers in the Grade I Juddmonte Spinster Stakes at Keeneland are also entered, Proviso (GB) and Mushka; in the Spinster, Proviso was disqualified to second when she veered into Mushka's lane in the final leaps of the stretch. Life is Sweet and Rainbow View are also entered. If Careless Jewel doesn't like the Pro-Ride, look to Proviso and Lethal Heat to try and steal the show.
The next time this column publishes, the first day of the Breeders' Cup will already have begun. Friday's races will kick off at 12:35pm PT with the Breeders' Cup Marathon, and will be preceded by the Juvenile Fillies Turf at 1:08pm, the Juvenile Fillies at 1:45pm, the Filly and Mare Turf at 2:23pm, the Filly and Mare Sprint at 3:02pm, and the Ladies' Classic at 3:45pm PT.
Now that online wagering has been made legal in Illinois, bettors can head over to TVG.com if for some reason they can't call in sick and make it to their local OTB. Not only will there be flurry of bets on the ponies, but the jockeys are also getting some action. For the first time, pari-mutuel wagering will be offered to bet on which jockey will win the most Breeders' Cup races. Last year, that honor went to Garrett Gomez when he took four races; when in doubt, you can count on Go-Go no matter where the track happens to be, unless, of course, he's riding against Mike Smith on Zenyatta.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
Thursday, October 15, 2009
John Malkovich....Lucien Lauren
Diane Lane....Penny Chenery
James Cromwell....Ogden Phipps
Fred Thompson....Bull Hancock
Nelsan Ellis....Eddie Sweat
Eric Lange....Andy Beyer
Kevin Connolly....Bill Nack
ESPN.com recently published a great article on the scope of the film and how it will be different from Seabiscuit. You can read that article at this link.
For more official news about the Secretariat film, visit Big Red's website at this link.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
This past Saturday, I set out on my maiden voyage to Arlington Park in Arlington Heights, Illinois; one would suppose, with all the races I attend, I would have visited one of the closest tracks in proximity to me at least a handful of times. I can't really say why it's taken me so long to visit the home of the Arlington Million, except for bad timing, looking to travel only to big stakes races, and my apprehension in having to take toll roads. What can I say, I don't like tricky driving. But after taking in the grounds and the experience there for the first time, I have to say I can't wait to return and get to know the park like an old broken-in couch.
Though I haven't been to half of America's racetracks, I've been to half of the top-rated facilities: Churchill Downs, Belmont Park, Oaklawn Park, Keeneland, Hollywood Park, Fair Grounds, and Turfway Park; this gives me a decent gauge on how to rate the new racetracks I visit. Calling itself the most beautiful track in America, Arlington was setting itself up for some scrutinizing. I admit I was pretty blown away by all I saw.
The first thing I noticed was the friendly staff waiting to greet you at the main gates; from the minute you arrive at Arlington, it's clear the proprietors want you to have a pleasant experience; it felt as if you were walking into an elegant, old-time park to see something really classy: what all good racetracks should strive for. When you enter a great race track, you feel like you're stepping into a different era, that you might be bumping into the upper crust letting down their hair and enjoying a beautiful day eyeing immaculate examples of horseflesh; elegance and racing go hand in hand-there's a reason there are races named after Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Arlington exuded this feeling immediately, from the entrance to the gorgeous paddock sitting directly behind the gates.
Though admission was a little pricier than most tracks ($7 for adults at the Box Office, $5 for Twin Spires Club members), I didn't mind footing the extra dough for a track that is unspoiled by slot machines and provides such a classy experience. The paddock was engorged with flowers and well-manicured trees, encircling an oval in front of the pristine saddling paddock. Rich green ivy climbed up the white stone walls of the rear of the grandstands, where a curving stair led you to the first level. I walked in, completely sold, before I'd even seen the track. There didn't appear to be a speck of dirt anywhere. And, unlike most tracks I've been to, there were people everywhere.
I attended Arlington Park on Blackhawks Legends Day, a special event coordinated to showcase ex-players from the NHL for autograph signings, which I cared and knew absolutely nothing about. But as far as I could see, only a fraction of the attendees at the track were actually there for the hockey stars. This was a non-stakes day, and the place was half-full of fans. I couldn't believe my eyes!
There were families and groups of friends everywhere; there were probably more people in attendance on this fickle day of racing than when I saw Horse of the Year Curlin run at Churchill Downs on Grade I Stephen Foster Super Saturday. Apparently, an outing to Arlington with your family or friends on a beautiful Saturday is the Thing To Do around Chicagoland. Why can't every track be like this? The atmosphere was fun, friendly, and simply unbelievable comparatively. Whatever secret the good folks at Arlington have figured out, the rest of America's tracks better figure out A.S.A.P. It's clear that the park pushes "family fun," and that looks to be a big factor with the crowds that came out on this late day in the season.
I also have to say a word about the facilities, because I like to see what is and isn't working at all the racecourses: the food was plentiful, and no matter what you were in the mood for, Arlington probably served it. Though I only went to the Cobeys Food Court on the first level, I was amazed by the choices of food and drink: you could order anything from a classic track frank and fries to pizza, a turkey sandwich, grilled chicken, or a salad. And it was good food, not reheated, soggy bread you knew had to have been sitting out since last Saturday. If you were to venture in the upper levels of the grandstands, maneuvering through the reserved and box seats, you were sure to find more elegant dining. If you arrived early, you could claim a table sitting at the top of the stairs, where you could relax and watch the races beneath shade. On either side of the grandstands, umbrella-shaded tables offered party-like terrace seating at an additional cost. Oh yeah, and the gift shop is also one of the best I've seen, offering everything from T-shirts and stylish hats to windbreakers, Arlington Million glasses, watercolor prints, and jewelry. You will not leave Arlington without taking home some sort of souvenir with the Arlington logo; even the reusable hurricane glasses were stamped with a race horse jetting out of a big A.
When I was able to pull myself away from the indoor marvels (yes, the bathrooms are also some of the cleanest I've encountered trackside), I was presented with what I consider to be one of the biggest factors in which I judge a racecourse: the outdoor apron seating, the infield, and the track itself. This is where a track lives and dies, and Arlington is set up with the fans in mind. While the infield is landscaped with majestic weeping willow trees and a large pond, both the turf and main track is easily viewable from the numerous outdoor bench seats, which cascade down stairs so no one will be obstructing your view, even if they're wearing a very large fancy hat. What's more, the finish line is placed directly in front of the grandstands, and the winner's circle is wedged in an embrace of paddock tunnel and grandstand seating. I don't think I've seen anything quite so fan-friendly. Not only can you stand directly across from the horses as they pass the wire, you can hang over the wall from the winner's circle and be handed a pair of signed jockey goggles, which is what all the kids were doing after each race. What a place.
There's only a couple complaints I have about Arlington, but they're not something the casual race-goer will probably notice; one, Arlington doesn't offer many stakes races. The Arlington Million is the track's pinnacle race, and I always seem to miss it for whatever reason. The race holds a few other stakes races on its main card the day of, which knocks out other days that could hold big stakes. Basically, I'd like to visit the track when it's full of top-notch horses not just running on the turf, which leads me to the next point: the main track is synthetic. Synthetic surfaces are proving to be a deterrent for some major athlete horses, like the great filly Rachel Alexandra; also, they're proving not to be the "safer" surface people thought they'd turn out to be. I won't get into the debate, it's just a personal preference, and the surface issue is becoming a hotly debated one in the racing world right now. With the other major Thoroughbred track in Illinois, Hawthorne, offering traditional dirt racing when Arlington's season ends come September 27, I'll have to check it out and see how it holds up.
But as Arlington is one of the finest tracks I've visited for family entertainment, atmosphere, live race-viewing, and amenities, it's going to have to be one hell of a track.
For more information on Arlington Park, visit their official website at ArlingtonPark.com. Follow them on http://twitter.com/arlingtonracing for racing updates and insightful commentary.
Friday, September 11, 2009
Some people dream of seeing the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty, of Mt. Rushmore or Gettysburg, whether for the history or the monument of Americana. To see one of these great pieces of our United States is to feel like the country is a little bit more yours, to thread the crossroads that connect the nation to your heart. It doesn't make you a better American to see these things, but it quenches a curiosity; it inspires, and presents a grandeur that little can convey. I dreamt of seeing such a timeless treasure, but the one I longed for was a living thing, something that was only three years old.
I dreamt of seeing a Triple Crown winner.
I wanted to see a rarity, I wanted to see true Greatness; I wanted to see a champion conquer the Mount Everest of American horse racing. Only the Triple Crown, I thought, would be able to provide such a test; after all, winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes in five weeks is a nearly impossible feat that has proven insurmountable for going on thirty-one years, making those eleven who have accomplished it seem all the more outstanding.
I was mistaken.
Though I still long for the day when I can say, "I saw (this future horse) win the Triple Crown," I can now say my appetite has been satiated. I no longer have to wait to see a Triple Crown winner to feel like I have seen a race horse reach the apex of Greatness. I saw that this past Saturday.
I won't bother to try to equal or do one better than what the award-winning turf writer Steve Haskin said about the Woodward most recently in Blood-Horse Magazine; Haskin pretty much summed up the feats Rachel Alexandra accomplished in becoming the first female to ever win the race, the heart it took for her to win under the conditions, the emotions she stirred at the grand old Spa, and put into perspective what she now means to the Sport of Kings.
Honestly, I don't know if I could find the words. I look at Rachel Alexandra, at what she has accomplished in so little time, and find myself at a loss. That sort of anomaly happens when you take in something breathtaking like the Grand Canyon, something that's too huge to wrap your mind around; I think there's a certain amount of respect in not saying anything at all, in merely basking in the glow of this tremendous horse... or just uttering "wow."
What more can be said on a subject that has been worn threadbare with glistening superlatives? She's the best race horse in the world right now? Certainly. She's one of the all-time Greats of the sport? Without question. Rachel Alexandra is more impressive than the undefeated Zenyatta? No contest. She has already tied-up the Horse of the Year honor? No brainer.
I'm blessed to have seen this picture of perfection in person, to have been present at the precise moment she exploded onto the scene like a comet from the darkness. I remember standing on the rail of Churchill Downs, telling everybody who would listen that Rachel Alexandra was going to blow the doors off this field of fillies in the Kentucky Oaks. The people standing around me were new to the sport; they didn't know Cigar from a stogie. I noticed a young man with a video camera as the horses were loading into the starting gates of the Oaks. I said to him, "You're not going to want to miss this. Watch Rachel Alexandra. Trust me."
Then the gates slammed open, and she erupted into the history books, and she never looked back.
I guess it's not so bad living in the 21st Century. Through all the trash, the worldwide conflict, the destruction of the environment, the war, the bad TV, the political unrest, the conspiracies, at least we have this: we have this horse, this indisputable champion, this little nugget of purity no one can touch.
And that's enough for me.
Friday, September 4, 2009
If Curlin taught me anything in the Breeders' Cup last year, it's that the best horse doesn't always win the race. Look also at the 2009 Stephen Foster where the sure bet, Einstein, was blocked in the whole way 'round and never got an opening, having to settle for third place to Macho Again, a horse he could beat by daylight on any given day. Some will say last week's Travers is also an example of this notion, as the blazing Quality Road was boxed in and cornered on the rail, where a river of water had him logged until it was too late to work him into stride, and the lead was quickly surrendered to a free-floating Summer Bird. We like to think our heroes are invincible, but even Superman had his Kryptonite.
This is why Rachel Alexandra's foray into the Woodward is a little unsettling: she is daring to challenge history at Saratoga Race Course, the notorious "Graveyard of Champions;" it was here that Man o' War was handed his only defeat in 21 starts, here that the mighty Secretariat was beaten by Onion, here that the name Jim Dandy would ring forever, when the 100-1 longshot beat the Triple Crown winner, Gallant Fox. It was here that a horse named "Upset" became a vernacular in the world of horse racing, synonymous to when a favorite is undermined. Rachel Alexandra won't just be battling older horses in the Woodward, she will attempting to vanquish the spirits of Saratoga...
Read the rest here.
In undercard news, I'll be rooting for my boy, Pyro, in the Grade I Forego; it's Race 9 at Saratoga, directly before the Woodward. He'll be going for his first Grade I victory, and the hard-knocking little horse deserves it. It won't be an easy task, but his last race proved he's come back to form as a 4-year-old. I don't know if anyone has yet figured out what distance he likes best. Seven furlongs has me worried, I'll admit; a mile seemed more to his liking. Anyway, go Pyro! and happy Woodward day!